Film reviews and more since 2009

The Blackening (2023) review

Dir. Tim Story

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Expanding upon a 2018 Comedy Central short by the comedy trio known as 3Peat — of which, co-writer/actor Dewayne Perkins is a member — The Blackening defines itself with one of the best taglines of the year. “We can’t all die first,” a reference to the horror trope that the (usually lone) African-American character is the first one offed in a slasher movie. Here’s a film that relishes taking the piss out of horror clichés almost as much as it does being a culturally specific film for an audience that is accustomed to Black characters in horror films being reduced to archetypes with a few lines of dialog before they’re hacked to bits before the opening credits.

That said, Perkins and co-writer Tracy Oliver pepper this story with rapid-fire dialog and light-hearted horror to assure this is as solid a crowd-pleaser as you’re likely to see all year. Directed by Tim Story (Barbershop, Ride Along), the film is buoyed by his experience with spectacle-laden comedies that equitably balance the chills and the laughs.

The film gets its title from a board game, which sits on a table in the center of a large “Game Room” inside a cabin in the woods. In the middle of the game itself is the face of a large, protruding, racist caricature (a “Sambo”) with voice technology that demands its players answer questions about Black culture (IE: “how many seasons was ‘dark-skinned Aunt Viv’ on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air before she was replaced by ‘light-skinned Aunt Viv?'”); failure to do so, or voice an incorrect answer, results in the brutal murder of the group’s friend (Yvonne Orji, who rents the cabin with her boyfriend in the Scream-inspired opening sequence).

The incredible chemistry of the cast fuels both the intrigue and the comedy: there’s Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins), the gay best friend; Lisa (Antoinette Robertson), the heart of the group; Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls, White Men Can’t Jump), Lisa’s cheating boyfriend; King (Melvin Gregg), the laidback reformed gangster; Allison (Grace Byers), the biracial woman who gets mocked for her perceived “Blackness;” Shanika (comedian X Mayo), the no-BS friend; and Clifton (Jermaine Fowler, looking like Eddie Murphy from Norbit), a socially awkward acquaintance they knew in high school.

It’s a big plus that The Blackening permits us ample time to get to know these characters and their foibles before the cat-and-mouse game takes hold. Lisa getting back with Nnamdi angers her longtime friend Dewayne, who has seen her hurt too many times before, giving weight to a conflict that boils underneath the surface for much of the film. Oliver and Perkins develop these characters beyond the usual horror flicks, thus infusing everything from slapstick, wordplay, and physical comedy into the dynamics, which inspire some riotously funny sequences.

The casting is legit perfect, and the story finds ways for each of them to transcend their archetype at least enough to get you invested in their plight. One great sequence comes when the Sambo on the board game demands they determine who is the “Blackest” of the group and sacrifice him/her to save their friend. This results in a two-minute back-and-forth between everyone as they plead their cases for why they don’t deserve such a designation. Nnamdi might be African, but he’s from Oakland and his dad is from South Africa, so surely he’s not it. Clifton voted for Trump (twice), and King has changed his gangster ways. These characters operate on credible instincts and their streetwise ways. Those who find themselves in similar situations in other films of the genre could learn a thing or two from them.

The Blackening has the flavor and comedic vibe of the first two Scary Movie films, which were of course made successful by the crafty wit of the Wayans family. It’s not necessarily spoofing horror films — like everything in the culture today, it makes references to films like Get Out without building a story around their plot-points — as much as it is making optimal use of its dual genres. A large chunk of the second act plays a lot like You’re Next, where the tone goes darker and the crossbow-wielding killer starts hunting the group at large.

The only true misstep Oliver and Perkins make is in the reveal, sadly, which is burdened by a lengthy monologue from the orchestrator that grows more tedious by the minute. It’s hard to contextualize without spoilers, but the film stumbles by going well beyond the joke (involving a certain card being revoked) by adding loads of backstory that’s irrelevant to us. If the justification for the murders were as significant as it’s made out to be, surely someone in this group would’ve made reference to it much earlier. There’s also evidence that Oliver and Perkins had a hell of a time trying to figure out how to appropriately end this picture. Where a nonchalant ending works in a comic short, it’s less effective after spending 90+ minutes with these characters.

The Blackening is meant to be seen with a loud and active audience. Rules of talking back to the screen, cheering, and vocally questioning character motives shouldn’t apply. My theater was lively and engaged despite the sparsely attended showing. Had it been more full, I might’ve ran the risk at bumping the film up half-a-star out of joy alone. Either way, this film treads tricky territory, and its mostly deft navigation of racial tropes and commentary under a broad comic light shouldn’t be ignored. It should be embraced. Loudly.

NOTE: The Blackening is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Starring: Dewayne Perkins, Antoinette Robertson, Grace Byers, Jermaine Fowler, Sinqua Walls, Melvin Gregg, X Mayo, Diedrich Bader, Yvonne Orji, Jay Pharoah, and James Preston Rogers. Directed by: Tim Story.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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